After four years of waiting I was actually going to see the new Acropolis Museum. It was originally planned to be completed in 2004 to accompany the symbolic return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual Athenian home but construction setbacks and various outbreaks of controversy along the way meant that it did not finally open to an expectant public until June 2009.
I purchased tickets on line and arrived at my allocated visit time of ten o’clock.
I had feared that the place would be crowded and uncomfortable but this was not the case at all and without the lines of visitors that I had anticipated it was easy to cruise effortlessly past the ticket desks and into the museum. I had a gigantic sense of anticipation because I was genuinely looking forward to seeing this magnificent replacement for the hopelessly inadequate museum at the top of the Acropolis that I had visited before and which it had replaced.
I have to say that anticipation was mixed with some trepidation because having followed the saga of the open wound debate about the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles I wondered how I was going to feel because the long awaited €130m Acropolis Museum is a modern glass and concrete building at the foot of the ancient Acropolis and home to sculptures from the golden age of Athenian history but unlike any other museum in the world this one has been designed to exhibit something it doesn’t own and can’t yet exhibit but all of Greece hopes that it will be the catalyst for the return of the disputed Marbles from the British Museum in London.
Outside the museum and in the cavernous entrance hall there were glass floors with sub-level views of the excavations that were discovered during the construction of the building and contributed to the delays and then there was a steady incline cruising through seven centuries of history and impressive and well set out displays along a generously wide gallery that provided sufficient space for everyone to stop and enjoy the exhibits without feeling hurried or under pressure to rush through this timeline of ancient treasures. Moving on to the second floor there are two galleries that I have to say I did not find so well set out and involved a rambling walk through a succession of exhibits that was not helped by the absence of a simple floor plan to help guide the visitor through and having finished with the second floor I then had to double back to get to the third and the Parthenon Gallery skilfully avoiding the café terrace and the inevitable gift shop along the way to make sure I wasn’t parted from my cash.
After an hour passing through various centuries of ancient Greece I finally arrived at the top floor Gallery, which is designed to eventually hold and display all of the Parthenon sculptures but for the time being has only about half of the originals. The remainder are plaster casts made from (and controversially paid for by the Greek Museum) of the remaining treasures temporarily remaining in London. It is truly impressive and with the Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon looming up outside I can only explain it rather inadequately as a very memorable experience. The top floor is designed to provide a full 360º panoramic of the building and how the sculptures would have looked when they were originally commissioned and sculptured in the fifth century BC.
I really liked the Museum but what I didn’t care for especially was the demonising of Lord Elgin and the unnecessary nationalist, provocative and belligerentanti-English sentiment attached to the explanations and the video commentary. I considered that rather offensive as an English visitor and it made me feel slightly uncomfortable and unwelcome. The descriptions of Elgin as a looter and a pirate seemed especially designed to stimulate a reaction from visitors from the United States who were encouraged to gasp in awe that a British Lord could have done such malicious and terrible things. I know that a lot of what should be in Athens is in London but let’s not forget that material from the Parthenon was dispersed both before and after Elgin’s time and the remainder of the surviving sculptures that are not in Athens are in museums in various locations across Europe and there are also parts of it in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the National Museum, Copenhagen, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the University Museum, Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich all of which seemed to have been conveniently ignored.
As I wandered around I considered the debate and tried to balance the two radically opposing views. There are many factors to take into consideration. We do not know if Elgin’s actions were legal at the time but he had certainly obtained permission to work on the Acropolis from the Ottoman authorities, then in control of Athens, and it seems that he had a genuine interest in archaeology and the preservation of the past. What shouldn’t be forgotten is that when Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state indeed and this is expediently omitted from the commentary and the otherwise excellent interpretation. In the early twentieth century there was some inappropriate restoration work that has subsequently been proved to be damaging so perhaps Elgin saved the Marbles from the deadly fate of ignorant restoration and we should thank him for that?
Although we think of it primarily as a pagan temple, its history as church and mosque was an even longer one, and no less distinguished. It was, as one British traveller put it in the mid seventeenth century, ‘the finest mosque in the world’ but all that changed in 1687 when, during fighting between Venetians and Turks, a Venetian cannonball hit the building, which was inappropriately being used as a temporary gunpowder store and approximately three hundred women and children were amongst those killed as the building itself was blown apart and destroyed. By 1800 a small replacement mosque had been erected inside the shell, while the surviving fabric and sculpture was suffering the predictable fate of many ancient ruins and falling further into a state of unloved disrepair.
Elgin might be the villain in the opinion of modern Greeks but what the Acropolis museum conveniently fails to mention is that at the time he removed the sculptures Turks and Athenians were using it as a convenient quarry and a great deal of the original sculptures and the basic building blocks of the temple itself were being reused for new local housing or simply being ground down for mortar. It is all very well getting precious about it now but whatever Elgin’s motives were for removing the sculptures there is no doubt at all that he saved them from possible even worse damage and without his intervention we might not be even having the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate at all.
My personal opinion? Well, I believe that we should thank the British Museum for having looked after them for the last two hundred years while all this was going on and then the Marbles should be returned and I believe that one day they will because as the poet and Grecophile, Lord Byron wrote and with whom I leave the last word:
‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed By British hands, which it had best behoved To guard those relics ne’er to be restored. Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved, And once again thy hapless bosom gored, And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!’